The 'Horizontal' Approach to Space Programs

There was an interesting article last week by Glenn Reynolds on how Weblogs and the Internet are wiping out hierarchies in information and media.

Big media used to be a top-down system, into which it took vast resources to become a significant player. With the advent of the Internet, the field has been leveled, and now many are citing blogs as playing a major role in bringing down one of the reigning aristocrats of journalism.

But the game is bigger than that, at least from my standpoint (and that of anyone who wants to see life and humanity expand into the universe).

There's another top-down, centralized command-economy hierarchy that is, well, so twentieth century. It's called the federal space program.

Like Leninism (search) and Stalinism, it has its five and ten-year plans. And like those systems, it rarely meets its goals.

There's a good current example of this, besides our own, that has some people worried (unnecessarily, in my opinion).

The Chinese space program is mildly interesting, to those interested in space in general, but it's not going to make major strides into the universe any time soon, and it's almost certainly not going to spur another space race. And that is, as the recently-indicted Martha Stewart (search) would say, "a good thing," because it was a space race between two socialist state enterprises (ours, aka NASA (search), and the Soviets) that got us into our current policy mess.

The Chinese are simply copying the Russian (aka "former Soviet") space program. That means that every launch involves the disposal of many tons of high-tech hardware. It's cost-effective for command economies, in the sense that one can maintain minimal activity on even more minimal resources, but the notion that it will actually open up space in any significant way is laughable.

I continue to think that they do it for reasons of national prestige. Space activities can be sustained for that reasons, but not a truly spacefaring civilization, which requires more tangible returns.

What we really need, to use Professor Reynolds' terminology, is a "horizontal space program," in which players at the bottom can have input, and even supersede the hierarchs above. This is starting to happen, if one is to believe the latest issue of Wired Magazine, which has a good roundup of the new entrepreneurial space activities that are arising from the ashes of the dot-com meltdown.

Young computer-gaming pioneer John Carmack, who is applying his wealth from games such as Doom and Quake to a vehicle contending for the X-Prize, puts it well:

"It's appalling how in aerospace, we've been using the same stuff for decades. There's a big difference between what's been done and what's been possible and that's the definition of opportunity."

Often it takes a savvy outsider to recognize such opportunities, and apply lessons from other spheres to take advantage of them:

"You've got to build a lot of vehicles to learn. Space has been mythologized way out of proportion ... We've just not had enough people doing it to be comfortable with the challenges. We're blasé about doing remarkable things with electronics that are much more difficult than rocket science."

Of course, there's the usual obligatory nay-saying from the usual suspects:

"NASA spent a billion dollars on the X-33, 100 times more than the X-Prize, and they couldn't make it work," says John Pike, director of, a defense and space policy consulting group in Alexandria, Virginia. "And the X-33 was just a subscale version of something that would have cost 10 times more than that. It costs $10,000 a pound to get into space, and the reason isn't the government — it's physics."

Of course, Mr. Pike is a physicist, and understands little about the real problems of space launch, which are operations and lack of economies of scale, so it's natural for him to think that. But the reality, of course, is that there's no law of physics that requires that it cost ten thousand dollars to get a pound of payload to orbit.

To be fair, of course, Mr. Carmack overstates it a little as well. There has in fact been some progress over the past few decades, but nowhere near as much as there should have been.

We often forget that as the Wright brothers were toiling away obscurely in their Dayton bicycle shop, with their own resources, the federal government had an "Aeronautics Program," in a sense, in which they funded a single aircraft design by Samuel Pierpont Langley, a physics professor. It employed a catapult, and was launched off a boat. On its maiden voyage, it broke and fell into the Potomac.

In the early part of the last century, after the Wrights' apparent success, everyone figured that if a couple of bicycle mechanics could design a working airplane, they could too.

In a sort of "Cambrian explosion" of innovation, there were hundreds of designs developed, most of which failed, but many of which succeeded and provided the basis of modern aviation as it matured into the twentieth century.

But with NASA's top-down, command approach, in which vast treasure is expended in pursuit of the Next Big Concept (first the National Aerospace Plane, then Venture Star, now Orbital Space Plane), the focus remains on the absurd and mistaken notion that there is a single right solution, and that only government bureaucrats are smart enough to come up with it.

Now that a variety of wealthy people are starting to attack the problem from a variety of directions, almost a century after the Wrights accomplishment, we're likely to see a new explosion of innovation, similar to the one in aviation of the last century.

History may repeat, and NASA's struggles to come up with effective transportation to orbit may appear to future historians as misguided as the funding of Professor Langley's single concept.

Which will succeed — a hierarchical monoculture, riven by politics and bureaucracy, or a more horizontal approach — an array of diverse ideas, driven by greed, excitement and daring? I know where I'd put my money, and when it happens, it will leave all of the government-funded programs, both here and abroad, in the dust.

Rand Simberg is a recovering aerospace engineer and a consultant in space commercialization, space tourism and Internet security. He offers occasionally biting commentary about infinity and beyond at his Web log, Transterrestrial Musings.

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